OPINION: The fight against COVID-19 in Africa: Reasons for worry and for hope

by Simon Missiri | IFRC
Wednesday, 8 April 2020 15:08 GMT

Workers of the Nairobi City County Government queue while observing social distancing to collect letters of redeployment by the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS), amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Nairobi, Kenya April 6, 2020. REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Wealthy nations must support Africa by urgently providing large-scale financing and technical support, to both save lives and sustain livelihoods

Dr Simon Missiri, IFRC’s Regional Director for Africa a.i. and Special Advisor to the Secretary General

Like many others, I am deeply worried about the pandemic that is about to sweep across Africa.

The continent’s socio-economic vulnerability, weak health systems, malnutrition, and high burden of diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis, leave millions of vulnerable people at greatly heightened risk from this disease. The poorest communities also stand to suffer the most from the economic impact of the pandemic.

A strong sense of anxiety is building up across Africa, as the global community races to contain the spread of COVID-19 across the world. We know that many of Africas strongest supporters in times of crisis - including humanitarian actors, donors and foreign Governments - are preoccupied with their own survival. And COVID-19 is already spreading at a worrying rate across the continent.

But if Governments, civil society and communities move quickly and work together today, we can still stop the worst effects of this pandemic before they strike.

Some strategies have already been put into place, such as social distancing, travel restrictions and even curfews. Now is the time to scale up the number of hospital beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment for Africa’s doctors, nurses, and community health workers.

We must also improve testing capacities. African Governments, with the help of global aid agencies and local communities, must quickly expand hygiene promotion, support household-level quarantine and ensure the continuation of care during social isolation and for routine health services.

Equally, we must build the trust of African communities in the necessity of these interventions by listening to them and adapting our ways of working to address their unique and important needs. And in a time where false rumours and misinformation can spread as quickly as a disease - and can be equally dangerous – our work within communities must include clear, simple and authoritative health information.

However, there is another dilemma to be solved.

Restrictions on movement will help to contain the spread of the virus, but it will also devastate people’s capacity to earn money, pay rent, feed their families, and visit health facilities for routine care. In addition, these policies may increase fear, feelings of isolation, and contribute to a loss of hope.

These are hard choices to make, but the people and Governments of Africa know a lot about hard choices.

A successful strategy for Africa lies in striking the right balance between addressing both the direct and indirect impacts simultaneously, working to both save lives and sustain livelihoods.

Decisive and bold action must define the coming days. Cash-based grants, livestock programmes, free access to health care and education can all reduce the economic burden on the people most at risk. Nutritional supplements, mental health and psychosocial support, can all help preserve hope and dignity at a time that might otherwise encourage despair.

For this to happen, large-scale financing and technical support from those best placed to provide it are urgently needed.

Wealthy nations, while racing to contain the pandemic in their own backyards, must also support Africa. There are no boundaries to a pandemic, and it will not be over while there are cases anywhere in the world. Now more than ever before, we must recognize how deeply the global community is intertwined.

Closed borders and the suspension of most international travel has driven home another key point: local organisations are essential in the response to humanitarian crises. The best placed actors are those who can access global funding through their global influence, and can act swiftly and sensitively through their local affiliates.

The IFRC and its member National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are among those who offer a globally local response. With 1.4 million volunteers and over 12,000 local branches across Africa, the Red Cross and Red Crescent can help partners, communities and national authorities ensure even the most remote and marginalized populations are protected from COVID-19.

To this end, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has launched an emergency appeal for 800 million Swiss francs (823 million US dollars) to help the world’s most vulnerable communities halt the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate its effects.

Africa’s window of opportunity for preparedness is rapidly closing. The message of warning has been given loud and clear by health workers from the most heavily affected countries.

In the coming months, the collective conscience of the global community will look back on this defining moment with either remorse or relief. The moment for individuals, communities, Governments and humanitarian organizations to act to prevent further spread of COVID-19 is right now — today.

Tomorrow may be too late.